More signs of past - and possibly present - habitability of Mars

NASA news conference Mars announcement

A NASA robot has detected more building blocks for life on Mars - the most complex organic matter yet - from 3.5 billion-year-old rocks on the surface of the Red Planet, scientists said Thursday.

But finding a trove of organic molecules on Mars is a big breakthrough for astrobiology, as organic molecules could be food for microbes, even if it doesn't represent life itself. Organic molecules contain carbon, the chemical element central to life.

There is a silver lining: as we mention above and NASA was quick to point out, "while commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life", which is encouraging.

"With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, in Washington.

Almost six years into its survey of a site called Gale Crater on Mars, NASA's Curiosity rover has delivered what may be the biggest discovery yet in its quest for signs of habitability and life: Organic molecules are abundant in Red Planet rocks, and the simplest organic molecule, methane, seasonally blows through the thin Martian air. And this discovery ushers in a new phase in the search for life on Mars.

According to NASA, billions of years ago a water lake inside Gale Crater held ingredients necessary for life, data from the rover reveals. "We can find organic matter preserved in mudstones that are more than three billion years old", Siebach said. The molecules could have been deposited on Mars by meteorites or formed in the lake through non-biological means.

The rover also found seasonal fluctuations of atmospheric methane. This variation was detected by Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite.

The methane could simply be the product of basic geological processes, but it's possible the gas has origins in biological sources. Curiosity reports that methane levels on Mars go up and down in a predictable cycle.

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In the first study, a team led by Christopher Webster, a chemist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, describes how Mars' atmosphere appears to have low levels of fluctuating methane. The long duration has allowed us to see the patterns in this seasonable 'breathing'.

NASA officials discuss the findings of the Mars Curiosity rover. And now they've added a catalogue of organic molecules to that list.

Here on Earth, 95 percent of all methane molecules are the product of living chemistry.

"There's a new mission in the planning where they'll be able to drill much deeper than the Curiosity rover can", Freeman says.

The results also indicate organic carbon concentrations on the order of 10 parts per million or more. Some of the molecules identified include thiophenes, benzene, toluene, and small carbon chains, such as propane or butene. "This gives us a lot of hope going forward in terms of organic detection on Mars", Dr. Pontefract says.

NASA's Curiosity rover landed inside Mars's 96-mile-wide Gale Crater on August 6, 2012, and since then it has been probing the Red Planet's geology, climate and the question of whether or not it has ever supported microbial life.

"And maybe we can find something better preserved than that, that has signatures of life in it", she told AFP. On Mars, where we only have a few molecules from a remote probe, this stuff is light years away from being conclusive.